Slavery is Everywhere: Let’s Talk About It

Harvard Law School is in something of a mutinous and discontented mood these days, which can only be a good thing at an institution of learning. Given that we are all eager to have conversations, I would like to initiate a conversation on a subject that seems to me very urgent. The debate about the Royall shield has drawn attention to the importance of unflinchingly examining our history, of exploring the ways in which the underlying evil of slavery has metamorphosed and reappeared in many guises throughout the subsequent life of our nation. The Royall shield is a symbol of slavery, but before Royall Must Fall held its first rally, before you learned its story, before you knew where it came from, your eyes probably passed right over it. Maybe, if someone had asked you, you wouldn’t even have been able to describe what it looked like, though you encountered it a dozen times a day as you moved throughout the campus. And the truth is that the Royall shield is far from unique. There are many such cunningly-disguised symbols of slavery in the architecture of our daily lives. Can you think of any?

How about those little bowl of candies that are sitting out in all the Harvard student offices? Did you know that some of those candies—it’s hard to know exactly how many—were made from cocoa that was harvested by slaves? How about a startling percentage of all the items you have ever bought? How often do you contemplate the fact that they were manufactured in whole or in part by fellow human beings, conveniently hidden from your sight, who are not paid a living wage, whose lives are devoid of the most basic necessities?

Another HLS student, writing in a satirical vein, has expressed an opinion on this topic; I would like to differentiate my own views, insofar as I do not think it is fair to characterize the campaigns to change the HLS shield or promote inclusiveness at Harvard as hypocritical simply because we live in a world with myriad other problems. A single student movement cannot expect to accomplish a thousand things at once, and Reclaim Harvard Law/Royall Must Fall has identified a specific set of goals that they believe are both meaningful and achievable. However, I do hope that the conversation about the Royall shield can help galvanize a separate discussion about the very real ways that all of us are actively participating in a slave economy: today, right now, this minute. Many, if not most, of the items we unthinkingly purchase, consume, and discard every single day are harvested or created by human beings—including children—living under conditions of abject misery and fear.

The next time you stop by that free coffee station near the Hark, pause a minute and think about what you’re doing. Want a cup of coffee? There’s a good chance those beans were picked by children under the age of 15. Some of them had to quit school to work in the fields. Many others were trafficked and enslaved. Those children worked long hours—Big Law firm hours—as many as eighty hours a week. They groaned under the weight of loads so heavy that their burdens left them with open sores on their bodies. When their pace slackened, some of them were beaten with branches or bicycle chains. If your coffee picker was an adult, he or she still likely earned next to nothing, was forced to pay inflated prices for essential goods at the estate shop, and was then bound to the plantation by their debts. The coffee industry, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, has performed a Cost-Benefit Analysis, but says that ensuring that child labor and forced labor are absent from their supply chains would be “onerous and especially costly to implement.”

Okay, so maybe you’re not feeling coffee today. What about tea? We’ve got Lipton! Well, the goods news is, Lipton’s parent company, Unilever, was one of the founding members of the Ethical Tea Partnership, an industry partnership that endeavors (very, very slowly) to improve worker conditions on tea plantations. The bad news is, Unilever subsequently dropped out of the partnership because they wanted to “undertake their own initiatives.” What are those initiatives? Hard to say. Poor housing, discrimination, and sexual abuse are still endemic on Unilever plantations. In the tea industry at large, workers endeavor to live on about 17 cents an hour. Sex trafficking of tea pickers’ children, with or without their parent’s knowledge, is rampant, because parents cannot afford to feed a family on the wages they earn.

Don’t like the sound of that? Why not have some of that hot cocoa, then? Yes, yes, some of Nestlé’s cocoa beans are harvested by children, a number of whom are trafficked, and who work as many as 14 hours a day. Nestlé is on it, though! In 2005, they vowed to remove child labor from their supply chains. As of this year, they were still giving their full attention to the problem. Maybe in another ten years they’ll have it figured out.

I do not mean to downplay the complexity of the economic and logistical issues implicated by global trade. There may be some truth in saying that misery is a fact of human life, that we cannot simply will it away by disliking it. But let’s be honest with ourselves: we all instinctively know that to harness the misery of humans in one part of the world to provide comfort and entertainment for humans in another part of the world is a perverse and inexcusable form of evil. No person on earth would choose to toil away all the years of their life, on starvation wages or worse, with no hope of improving their lot, manufacturing useless luxuries to be fleetingly enjoyed by others upon whom the accident of birth has bestowed greater fortune. That is injustice itself. When people respond to exposés of worker exploitation with statements like, “Well, they’d be worse off if they weren’t making our products!” what they are employing is, quite simply, slaver logic. To shrug and accept obvious moral evils simply because they would be difficult to address. because altering the prevailing system will likely have complicated economic and political consequences, is the kind of thinking that perpetuated the institution of slavery in this country throughout multiple centuries during which many people of both conscience and influence were fully aware that it was wrong. During those intervening years, thousands of human lives were trampled, degraded, mutilated, both spiritually and physically; and the ruination of those lives can never now be repaired. For law students today who believe that justice is not a mere category defined and circumscribed by our legal system, but is rather a holistic moral worldview that should inform all the decisions of our daily lives, we simply cannot accept a status quo that makes us all into the mirror image of an earlier generation of American elites: masters who do not know how to free their slaves.

So what can we do? On an individual level, the Kantian or “conscientious objection” approach is ethical consumerism: to boycott companies that engage in unfair labor practices (including unpaid or minimally-compensated labor, use of child labor, bans on or retaliation against unionization, inadequate sanitation and safety standards, tolerance of sexual assault and harassment, and environmental destruction) and patronize companies that use good practices. This is a start. I would, for example, be very glad to see the Hark start offering products by Equal Exchange, a Massachusetts-based company with a comprehensive “Ethical Best Buy” rating from the Ethical Consumer Research Association. If Harvard (quite rightly) offers vegan and vegetarian accommodations for students who have moral objections to eating meat, why not also have some options for people who have moral objections to consuming products made by enslaved and exploited workers? In addition, when the shield is changed—as it likely will be—I would like to see Harvard publicize a commitment to place the new seal exclusively on merchandise manufactured by workers operating under fair labor standards, using materials extracted and processed by workers operating under fair labor standards. To get rid of a slaver’s symbol at our school, only to have the new seal branded onto products manufactured through literal or de facto slavery, would be a grotesque hypocrisy unworthy of a serious legal institution.

Ethical consumerism is necessarily an approach with serious limitations, however. If enough people do it at once, of course, it might have the potential to move the domestic products market without recourse to legal or regulatory measures: if consumers place a premium on ethics, companies may try to meet the demand. But there are a number of problems here. For starters, making ethically-informed choices can be horrendously difficult due the high level of informational asymmetry between companies and consumers, and the misleading or unverifiable nature of most “fair trade” labels. Ethically-made products are more expensive, making it much more difficult for low- and fixed-income people to make purchases based on ethical considerations, as compared to middle- and upper-income individuals. (Companies like Wal-Mart have had great success with the reverse-Robin Hood approach, whereby, in charging rock-bottom prices for cheaply-manufactured goods, they rob the poor to feed the poor.) Finally, while it’s comparatively easy to be an ethical consumer of many common food products, it’s next to impossible when it comes to necessities such as clothing and (what is now effectively a necessity in modern society) technology. Ethically-produced garments are nearly impossible to find; ethically-produced electronics are, I think, entirely impossible. You can buy used items, but that’s as close as you get. It’s always pretty hard to move the market towards a product that doesn’t exist.

The prevailing wisdom in some circles is that the bad PR surrounding labor abuses can compel multinationals to voluntarily improve their standards; or that multinationals, which are major regional players in most developing economies, will self-regulate in increasingly a humane direction due to the growing popularity of the “corporate responsibility” ethos. Perhaps that’s true. But once again, asymmetry of information, financial resources, and political power means that we will simply have to take their word for it. We will have to, in the words of Pope Francis—one of the few political figures in the public eye who ever speaks candidly on this issue—place “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” The fact is, if we want to hold those who make our products accountable, if we want better assurances than a pinky-promise that they will fulfill their moral responsibilities, we will need better laws. I would like to see a real conversation at Harvard about what those laws ought to look like. If we can’t have that conversation here—at the best-resourced law school on the face of the planet—where’s it going to happen?

Brianna Rennix is a 1L. She is currently serving as news editor, & will be serving as one of two editors-in-chief next year.

Brianna Rennix is the editor-in-chief of The Record and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018.